If you were to read one Clarice Lispector book, which should it be?

Review: three books by a writer Colm Tóibín calls ‘one of the hidden geniuses of 20th-century literature’


Clarice Lispector is regarded as one of the great writers of the 20th century. Colm Tóibín calls her “one of the hidden geniuses of 20th-century literature”. Others place her in the company of Joyce and Kafka. If she has a real affinity, it is with Beckett, in their shared project of naming the unnameable.

She was born in the Ukraine in 1920. Her Jewish family had to flee the horrors of the pograms which followed the first World War. Eventually they arrived in Brazil. There, when Clarice was nine, her mother died, succumbing to syphilis contracted when she was raped by Russian soldiers. Clarice had to live with the possibility that her mother conceived her as a cure for the disease. She said she carried the guilt of her mother’s death with her for the rest of her life.

Clarice was left with the impression of the world as a place oblivious to the concerns of human beings. This bleak biography would seem to have an influence on her work. Yet, as a character in her first novel says: “All I know I never learnt but had always known.”

Her first, award-winning novel was published in 1943, when she was 23. The title Near to the Wild Heart is a quote from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.”

The book may be seen as partly biographical. It is the story of Joanna, following the “facts” of a life: childhood, tragedy, marriage, affairs. She is a strange girl – described by others, variously, as “evil”, a “viper”, and “capable of murder”. Through a fluid text, Lispector moves back and forth from adulthood to childhood.

There is a forensic examination of her conciousness – a sometimes exhaustive list of changing moods and feelings. The examination of her relationship with her husband, Octavio, reads like an existentialist Mills and Boon written by Nietzche. At other times the book has an overripe, a fevered quality, which may be expected from a coming-of-age novel but which here really applies to her intense internal struggle for meaning – to find a God who is “everything everything”. A mystical endeavour that has little to do with others. “Solitude is in my essence,” Joanna says.

The Passion According to GH (1964) takes it further: there’s no story, only a well-to-do woman encountering a cockroach in the room of her absent maid. Up until the point she (GH) enters the room, we are told she had lived her life with a “light, general pleasure”. In the room she finds a challenge to this idea of her life; it is as if the maid’s negative attitude to her is revealed by the alien atmosphere of the room.There follows an often tortured treatise on one woman’s struggle to find a way of being in the world that is in communion with a reality greater than a humanistic concept of life. It is sometimes hard to read and reminds one of the films of the visionary film director Jodorowsky – alternating often baffling stretches with sudden startling, brilliant images.

Again Beckett is recalled: “It is exactly through the failure of the voice that one comes to hear for the first time one’s own muteness and that of others and of things and accepts it as a possible language.”

Lispector tries to connect with a way of being that achieves the “deheroisation” of the individual. She attempts to access the essence which is “matter” – shedding all the “accretions” of humanity (as expressed in ideas of beauty, justice and goodness) – to move back to the root, the beginning: that our fundamental being is “matter” and that by accessing the “neutral” matter in ourselves, we can find God, who is “whatever exists”. Here are echoes of the Jewish philospher Spinoza.

In The Hour of the Star, published shortly before her death in 1977, the narrator is a man, Rodrigo SM. He tells the story of a girl, Macabea, a poor young woman who displays little self reflection.

It is also the story of the writing of the story. Although postmodern in that element, it suffers none of the sterile academic tone often associated with such exercises. It’s strangely humanistic and heartfelt. The fictional male narrator becomes a strangely transparent character (in The Passion According to GH Lispector talks of women being more in tune with the “matter” of the world), leaving the book to develop into a type of dialogue between the author and the girl; Macabea becomes a conflation of the maid in GH, Lispector herself, and the main character of GH after her communion with “reality”.

The usual obliqueness of Lispector’s novels is is here harnassed to produce an exploration of the nature of writing, and of creating characters, a contemplation of class inequality and on into an existential/ spiritual denouement. If you are to read one Clarice Lispector book, make it this truly brilliant novel.

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